Conchord's selection of instrumental music by Johann Sebastian Bach is almost entirely made up of concertos, the only exception being the opening work which is a concerto in all but name � the SUITE IN B MINOR BWV 1067, with a prominent part for flute. Bach can hardly be accused of being the most fashion-led of composers � his music was viewed as outmoded by his contemporaries � but in this case he was writing music for an instrument which become enormously popular by the 1730s. The transverse flute had become the instrument of choice among fashionable French society, and Bach may have composed the solo part for the star French flautist Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin who was part of the all-star international orchestra at the nearby court of Dresden.
This kind of overture-suite itself has its origins in the courtly world of French opera and ballet. It always began with a large movement in the style of a French overture, with a poised opening section with slow music in a dotted rhythm leading to a faster section where the instruments imitate each other, before returning to a modified version of the opening. In his example, the way Bach changes the time signature from 4/4 to � time in its return is the inventive masterstroke of a masterful composer was rarely content to accept a conventional form at face value.
After the overture come a succession of elegant stylised dance movements. The German version of the suite had taken a more fixed form by this stage, but Bach revelled in the freedom that this Frenchified form allowed by composing a succession of light and varied movements, leading with seeming inevitability to the famous Badinerie. In our own day as a mobile phone ring tone it has interrupted many a serene train journey; here the Badinerie is restored to its original place as the crowning glory of Bach's finest work for flute.
But was it always meant as such? According to one school of thought, the last surviving set of parts written out by Bach and copyists leave some tell-tale signs that the suite has an earlier version in the key of A minor which was probably meant for the violin. So it might be worth treading carefully.
If this is the case, it's by no means the only example. Bach was perfectly happy to revise his own compositions as well as those by other composers, when a new opportunity to perform them arose. Thank goodness for us that he did, because in some cases it's only the revisions that survive. The next two works on the CD are fine examples: the CONCERTO FOR OBOE D'AMORE BWV 1055 and the CONCERTO FOR OBOE AND VIOLIN BWV 1060 would have been lost for ever had it not been for the arrangements that Bach had made for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum which he directed throughout the 1830s. Despite its serious-sounding title, the Collegium Musicum was an informal affair, a regular weekly get-together of musicians, either in the congenial ambiance of Gottfried Zimmermann's coffee house on winter evenings, or outdoors in summer afternoons. The image of Bach getting together with members of his family and friends to perform in an informal setting gets a persuasive modern counterpart in the one to a part approach of this modern recording. Hard to imagine a full orchestral string section squeezing into a coffee house somehow! As vehicles for Bach's own playing the solo parts were rearranged for one of more harpsichords. These reconstructions and others like them are widely published in the definitive Neue Bach Ausgabe and elsewhere, and are beginning to be more frequently performed than the harpsichord versions that they come from.
However the famous D MINOR CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS BWV 1043 does survive in its original version. In writing for strings, Bach had no qualms in taking his lead from the great Italian composers � past masters at bravura string writing as well as effortlessly lyrical melodies. One enduring image of the double violin concerto is of the two solo violin parts as identical characters, imitating each other and intertwining like a pair of lovers, most clearly of all in the tender slow movement which might be equally at home as a duet in a Baroque opera. And while he worked for most of his career as an organist, it's worth remembering that Bach was a fine violin player as well. We have that on the good authority of his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel, who wrote: In his youth, and well into old age, he played the violin with a clear, penetrating tone.
If a Leipzig coffee house was one of Bach's regular performing venues, another venue on a much grander scale was the Spiegelsaal or mirror-lined throne room in the palace at C�then. Bach spent six years as Kapellmeister there as a younger man, composing some of his greatest instrumental music during that period. And it was there that Bach probably wrote all of the concertos in this selection. That much is certainly true of the three BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS on disc 2, composed as part of a failed job application for a post at another court, that of the Margrave of Brandenburg. The CONCERTO NO 2 calls for an astonishingly disparate line-up of soloists; violin, oboe, recorder, and an instrument that Bach referred to as a tromba. Trumpeters have happily seized on this part as their own, but it's just possible that Bach had the horn in mind. One set of parts calls for tromba � vero corno da caccia; most of Bach's trumpet parts are in C or D while this one is in the key of F, a very natural key for the horn; the solo part fits the horn well, and with this line-up there's a more equal sonic balance between the soloists - I always feel sorry for the poor recorder player when there's a trumpet soloist to contend with! My thanks to John Humphries for his help on the musicological side of this; on a personal note, I am delighted to hear a horn take this solo part, since it was in this form that I first got to know this Brandenburg concerto, in the Academy of St Martin in the Fields recording of the Thurston Dart edition which came out in 1971.
While that work places four quite different solo instruments on an equal footing, in the Fourth and Fifth Brandenburg concerti some soloists are definitely more equal than others. In the BRANDENBURG CONCERTO NO 4 IN G BWV 1049 a solo violin takes most of the spotlight - listen out for some dazzling runs in the outer movements! � but a pair of flutes also make a telling contribution. Bach credits them as flauti d'echo on the title page; whether he was referring to special instruments called echo flutes or simply echo effects in the music is one of those Bach debates that will run and run. Conchord sidesteps the controversy in this recording by allocating the parts to two modern concert flutes.
As for the Brandenburg Concerto no 5 in D BWV 1050, this has been called the first ever keyboard concerto, with co-starring roles for violin and flute. Unusually the ensemble lineup that appears alongside them has no part for second violin. A plausible explanation for this is that Bach normally took the viola part, but chose to play the virtuoso keyboard part on this occasion, with the second violinist taking over the viola player's duties. A game of musical chairs in more ways than one!
A modern concert grand piano takes the solo role here, while almost entirely leaving out the other important role a baroque keyboard player would have been expected to perform � to accompany the others and fill out the harmonies in the so-called continuo section. Members of Conchord make an eloquent case for this and other aspects of their slimmed-down modern instrument approach elsewhere in the booklet, without making an absolute statement that this is how Bach's music should always be performed. As always the question should always be whether the performances are true to the composer's intentions. To my ear, the light textures, the flowing speeds and the sheer musicality of these interpretations speak for themselves.